Today, power-sharing collapsed in Northern Ireland.
And nobody noticed.
They’ll notice soon enough, though.
The British prime minister, Theresa May, has made a solitary visit to her westernmost outpost in her half-year in the job. Even then, she didn’t give the impression that she had much of a grasp on affairs in those six counties.
Campaigning – albeit half-heartedly – on the Remain side of Britain’s European Union referendum last year during her time as interior minister, she visited the North where she made plain that the immediate consequence of Brexit would be the inevitable return to a hard border between North and South. Now, returning as prime minister with the referendum lost, she U-turned and insisted there would be no return to the border of the past.
It’s not just Theresa May who doesn’t understand – or care about – Northern Ireland. This evening, as news filtered through of the end of devolution in the statelet, I flicked between RTÉ’s Six-One News programme and the BBC Six O’Clock News. The main item on the BBC’s programme was the beginning, in London, of an inquest into a terrorist attack in Africa last summer. RTÉ’s offering was to devote a full ten minutes at the start of the programme.
The cavalier contempt for the devolved institutions could not be clearer. It’s the opposite of what Gordon Brown promised as Unionists lashed out in fear at the climax of the independence referendum: far from being “the closest thing to federalism”, we are left with a Union in which the state broadcaster doesn’t consider the collapse of democracy in one of its constituent states to be important enough to lead its news programme.
They’ll stand up and take notice soon enough, though.
Whilst you can find far more in-depth analyses of what’s gone wrong in northern Ireland on news media websites, a Reader’s Digest version of it is this:
Since Ian Paisley was ousted by fundamentalists in his Democratic Unionist party, the relationship between Unionist and Nationalist parties has grown more brittle by the day. Unionist arrogance has grown, and the emergence of Arlene Foster as the leader of Unionism led to a deeper sectarianising of Unionism than has been seen since the days of the former Unionist state in the North.
The DUP has systematically refused to enact an Irish Language Act agreed to in the St Andrews Agreement (Unionists in northern Ireland have as much fear and hate of the Gaelic language as their counterparts in Scotland), and have stripped funding for Irish language schemes (including a scheme run by Líofa to send children from deprived areas on trips to the Gaeltacht) and projects viewed by them as being insufficiently Unionist – such as a planned peace centre on the site of the abandoned Maze prison camp – in order to funnel £1,9m (€2,2m) of taxpayer’s money to fund local Orange halls.
So far, so Unionist. And one ought to remember that the Orange Order is itself a minority sect within Unionism, and it is Unionist taxpayers’ cash too which is being misdirected to prop up these hate groups.
The final straw for Sinn Féin was the news that Arlene Forster, as environment minister, had catastrophically mishandled a scheme designed to financially incentivise people who availed of renewable heating.
Despite knowing that the scheme had been so badly misdesigned as to pay users £1.60 (€1.82) for every £1 (€1.14) of fuel purchased, Foster allowed the project to carry on for months, at a cost to the Northern Ireland taxpayer estimated at £490m (€557m). One farmer is set to receive £1m (€1.14m) for heating an empty barn.
So far, Foster has consistently refused to reveal whether there is any correlation between the (secret) list of those who availed of the scheme after the flaw was brought to the DUP’s attention, and the (equally secret) list of those who donate money to the DUP.
With Foster refusing to stand aside as co-First Minister pending the result of an inquiry into her actions, Sinn Féin withdrew from the power-sharing Executive, leading to the collapse of devolution this afternoon.
And so far, so northern Ireland.
But northern Ireland’s assembly no longer exists in isolation.
The British Supreme Court is likely to rule shortly that the May regime requires the consultation – and perhaps the assent – of the devolved administrations to invoke Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, which is at present Mrs May’s preferred route of withdrawing the United Kingdom from the European Union.
For their part, Sinn Féin have made it clear that there will be no return to the status quo.
There will be no administration if Arlene Foster is the Unionist selection as co-First Minister. And with no administration in place in Belfast, it would be rather difficult to consult it.
The British minister to the North has made it clear that he will not countenance assuming the powers of Acting First Minister as several of his predecessors did.
So there will be political deadlock in the North, blocking Brexit until it is sorted. And the May regime will not – cannot – over-ride it. Whilst they can do what they want to Scotland and Wales, and will have the enthusiastic support of the local Labour and Conservative parties to do so, the devolution they have extended to Northern Ireland is different.
Power-sharing in Northern Ireland is achieved not by an internal settlement as in Scotland and in Wales, but by dint of an international, legally-binding treaty. And, what’s more, a treaty with an EU member state which has power of veto over any deal the UK negotiates with the European Council.
Secondary to this, of course, is the fact that the Good Friday Agreement secures the right of anyone born in northern Ireland to choose whether to bear Irish – EU – citizenship, or to be a subject of the United Kingdom. They can also be both, simultaneously being a citizen of the European Union and not being a citizen of the European Union.
It will be interesting to see how the May regime copes with the dichotomy of one set of United Kingdom subjects having the right to live, work and settle in the European Union while the other 60-odd million of us don’t.
Not for the first time, one is left with the impression that the British government would much rather Northern Ireland quietly went away.
With a divided Unionist electorate, and a Sinn Féin in no mood to yield to either the Unionists or the British any further, a Border Poll might be necessary before Brexit happens.
The Tories, Ukip, and Scottish Labour may be bringing us a “red, white and blue Brexit”. But it’s looking less likely by the day that that Brexit will include Scotland and Northern Ireland.